Wernher von Braun: I Shoot for the Stars!’ (Occasionally He Hit London)
By Tom Morrow
One of the more controversial decisions of post-World War II was bringing to the U.S. a group of German rocket scientists under “Operation Paperclip.” Headed by Wernher von Braun, the group had brought down death and destruction upon England, but later, their technology took us to the Moon.
Born March 23, 1912, von Braun was the leading figure in the development of German rocket technology before and during World War II. The U.S. progress in manned space travel can be directly traced to von Braun.
More people died building the V-2 rockets than were killed by it. Von Braun admitted visiting the slave-labor plant at Mittelwerk on many occasions, and called conditions at the plant “repulsive,” but claimed he never witnessed any deaths or beatings, although it had become clear to him by 1944 that deaths had occurred. Some prisoners claim von Braun engaged in brutal treatment or approved of it.
Von Braun designed and developed the V-1 and V-2 rockets at Peenemünde launch site on the Baltic Sea. Hitler’s “Vengeance” rockets rained down death and destruction on London and other English cities. Von Braun always claimed he had his eye on conquering space rather than weapons, especially building a rocket to reach the Moon and Mars. Critics had a black-hearted joke for von Braun: “I shoot for the stars, but occasionally I hit London.”
He was supposedly a major in the SS, but he maintained being a Nazi was forced upon him – a point that is debatable.
Von Braun had been under Gestapo surveillance since October 1943, because he expressed more interest in space travel than weapons of war. Nazis considered this a “defeatist” attitude. SS chief Henrich Himmler launched a false charge saying von Braun was a “communist sympathizer” and had attempted to sabotage the V-2 program. Additionally, von Braun regularly piloted his government-provided airplane that might allow him to escape to England. On March 14, 1944, von Braun was arrested and detained and was taken to a Gestapo cell. Von Braun gained conditional release when Albert Speer, Reichsminister for Munitions, persuaded Hitler to reinstate von Braun so the V-2 program could continue. In his memoirs, Speer wrote that Hitler conceded von Braun was to be “protected from all prosecution as long as he was ‘indispensable.’”
In early 1945, the Soviet Army was close to Peenemünde. Von Braun asked his staff to decide how and to whom they should surrender. Unwilling to go to the Soviets, they all chose the Americans.
Von Braun led a group of 500 scientists to Austria, surrendering to the American Army. Fearing documents and blueprints would be destroyed by the SS, von Braun had ordered them hidden in an abandoned mine shaft before surrendering to the U.S. Army.
On June 20, 1945, the U.S. Secretary of State approved the transfer of von Braun and his specialists to the United States where they were assigned to Fort Bliss just north of El Paso, Texas.
Following the war, von Braun worked developing U.S. ballistic missiles. He became a U.S. citizen and was assimilated into the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) where he served as director of the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Von Braun was the chief architect of the Saturn V, which propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon. On Jan. 31, 1958, the U.S. launched America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, which signaled the birth of NASA’s space program.
Despite von Braun’s successes, the U.S. press dwelled on von Braun’s past as a member of the SS and the slave labor used to build his V-2 rockets. However, as publicity for space travel grew, von Braun was brought into American living rooms by Walt Disney, who often featured the scientist on his Wonderful World of Disney, a weekly TV program. Disney also opened his space-oriented “Tomorrowland” at Disneyland.
Von Braun developed preliminary plans for a human mission to Mars that used a space station as a staging point. By 1960, the German scientist had become a central figure at NASA. His Saturn V rocket propelled the Apollo program to the moon. Now, some 50 years later, NASA is working toward completing von Braun’s dream of going to Mars – a distance considerably further than the Moon. Reaching the red planet would be a giant step of von Braun’s dream of reaching the stars.
Unfortunately, von Braun never realized that goal. He died on June 16, 1977 of pancreatic cancer in Alexandria, Virginia at age 65.